Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tymoshenko's Tribulations III: The US as Glass Box

This is supposed to be a blog about Ukraine, and it still is, but how this piece fits in with a Ukraine blog will emerge only at the end of this piece.

Every time that I leave and come back to the United States I feel like I am re-entering a glass box that is mirrored on the inside and see-thru from the outside. “Americans” stand in the middle, and while looking around within the box, and while actually trying to look outside this box, all they see, for the most part, are their own reflections everywhere. (And I am not gonna comment on how far too many Americans travel abroad and shop at American chains, eat at McDonalds, and seek out American hotels; and I also won’t comment on the expats—whether they belong to diasporas or not—who think the country they’ve adopted is only truly worthwhile and respectable if it is trying hard to become more American, or more Western in general. . .). Add to this already intense difficulty to see (and think) outside this mirrored box the complication of a powerful media machine that projects (mostly false) images of what the rest of the world and the US itself really is like onto the mirrored walls, and that many people looking at those images on the walls adopt them for their own, not knowing any better.

But the rest of the world is able to look into the US. The image of what is seen from the outside sure enough can be tinted and thus distorted as through mirrored sunglasses, but at least America can be seen from the rest of the world, while the US can’t see the world hardly at all.

The first time this image popped into my head was upon re-entering the US from Canada a week and half after the invasion of Iraq had begun. I had left for Canada the very day it began, not because I was fleeing, for I had had plans to go to Toronto before anyone knew when the invasion would begin; but I gotta say that I really enjoyed the notion of getting the hell out of here on that day! Being in Canada was like a huge breath of fresh air: the Canadian press is more of a real press with more truly intellectual and muckraking pieces available than in the US press (which is not a comment on the greatness of the Canadian press—its not that great—but on the very severe deficiencies of the press in the US). It was refreshing to be nestled in world, and not merely Canadian, opinion during those opening days of Shock and Awe (ask a so-called terrorist what s/he wants to do, and s/he may as well as tell you, “I want to put my enemy into a state of shock and awe!”) that lead to thousands of innocent people dieing in a matter of days (who holds a monopoly on terrorism? only non-State actors???). It was crushing to re-enter the world of deafening war drums and narrow-minded patriotism and, what is the worst, of worship of executive power. I felt the glass lid close as I crossed the border, where, by-the-way, I was searched for the first time ever crossing the US-Canadian border.

But what got me going on all of this again just now? Well, the image of the US as this glass box usually pops into my head when I come into contact with people who think that outside the West, the world is populated by barbarous, uncivilized nations (or once again, when I talk to people for whom the nations of the world are only worthwhile places so long as they are seeking to join the Western clubs). More frequently, however, it comes up when I talk to people who think that the media in the US is governed by a liberal, if not outright left-wing, conspiracy. It also comes up when I talk to people who think that Anne Coulture has a point. On that note, it also comes up in my mind while talking with people who conflate social democracy or populism or Keynesianism or FDRism with socialism (which is nearly axiomatic for, or has become far too typical of, political discourse in the US). I already wrote about the ridiculousness of conflating the two in my last piece, and repeat here that conflating social democracy with socialism is like saying, hyperbolically, that Bush is a Nazi, and really meaning it (or that George Soros is a Communist, and really meaning it). Or here’s another simile: it is like saying that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela—who is a democratically elected populist, or FDR liberal, or Welfare-statist, or social democrat—is the equivalent of Fidel Castro, who is a dictator with a policy of intolerance (especially toward gays) and a megalomaniac.

Specifically, what got me thinking about this today is a snippet I just read in a new book I just picked up. I was at my non-favorite bookstore Barnes and Nobles perusing all the right-wing books, which I do often. One should always read one’s opposition, and I also spend lots of time listening to right-wing talk radio and talking with right-wingers, some of whom are friends and family. So at Barnes, I sometimes buy the books, but usually will just sit for an hour or two at the store reading. The book that caught my attention today had this title: The Right Nation. I thought to myself, once again, “Damn them and their ancestors for having had historically (and thus accidentally) landed on the right-hand side of the hall of the French parliament!” since I am getting sick to my stomach from the overabundance these days of dim-witted comments about being “on the right side,” etc. But when I peered into the book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was written by two British and left-wing authors (John Micklewhait and Adrian Woolridge) who are peering into the US from the other side of the glass. I opened randomly to p. 359 and read the following passage, which in general is about how narrow (and to the right) the political spectrum is in the US:

“The man who got left-wing America on the march [for the 2004 election] held views on all sorts of subjects that would have disqualified him from left-of-center politics in Europe. He was by European standards a firm supporter of Israel. He opposed the Kyoto Protocol. He supported the intervention in Liberia, and he mocked Bush for not being tough enough on Saudi Arabia. Indeed, [Howard] Dean said that thirty years ago, he would have been an Eisenhower Republican. ‘It’s kind of a sad commentary that I’m the most progressive candidate running, our here talking about a balanced budget and a health care system run by the private sector,’ he told the New York Times. ‘I was a triangulator before Clinton was a triangulator. In my soul, I’m a moderate.’ A young Swedish Deaniac who worked for Dean in Iowa protested that, back home in Sweden, his candidate would be regarded as a ‘middle-of-the-road conservative.’”

This is a great quote for pointing out two things: First, that the status quo in the US is already to the right (only a nation with an already right-wing status quo can have people complaining that the kind of media that the US has is the result of left-wing control; what these people really want is a farther-right status quo and an end to pluralism); but the glass-box effect makes this really hard for many in the US to see. Second, this is a great quote for warning the Left of its own problems with the glass-box effect: Dean might have been a rallying point, but he was far—quite, in my opinion—from perfect, and was and remains far from embodying a truly humane politics. Not to say that one should not have rallied behind him (I eventually did): we do need to try hard to level the playing field once again.

But one other thing: Dean did get something quite wrong in the quotes from him above. There were more progressive people in the running for the Democratic ticket, people who tried and who continue to try to re-ignite the old, populist, radical farmer-laborer flame of the DFL. The Clinton revolution within the DFL—the conversion of the Democratic Party into a cheap copy of the Republicans—needs to be reversed.

And to conclude with Ukraine: populism is still much more alive in Ukraine than in the US, and I hope that the Baby (i.e., represented by Julia Tymoshenko and her government) does not get tossed out with the dirty bathwater (i.e., the oligarchy) in what would then turn out to be a NeoLiberal Orange Revolution (which if Tymoshenko—or Yushchenko—listens to her Western and Kyiv Post critics, it will turn out to be). I hope that Tymoshenko figures out what kind of populism works for Ukraine, and successfully sorts through and gets rid of what is just unnecessary bureaucracy, for I assert here again that it is far too simplistic to say that social democracy and a suffocating bureaucracy are intimately, irreversibly connected. If Tymoshenko’s government doesn’t get it right, the blind ideologues of the unregulated free-market system will fry them, and this will bode very, very poorly for the future of Eurasia. There is much more pressure on her government than one would think.

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